A Different Way to Combat Climate Change

The first time I thought about the potential danger of climate change was during my early days in Jimmy Carter’s gubernatorial administration in Georgia. Carter said that other than reorganizing government, he “spent more time on preserving our natural resources than on any other issue.” His focus, of course, filtered down through the agencies and we all knew that this was a priority for the governor.

I, however, was totally focused on the work in front of me:  providing welfare, social services, public mental and physical health, and rehabilitation. The plight of the environment was in the back recesses of my mind and that is where it stayed for a couple of decades.  Most of my interactions with environmental groups during my work in Georgia, Washington, and Arizona were competitive: public health/welfare/social service advocates competing with environmentalists for legislative attention and resources. I simply was not aware of the increasing danger of a warming climate until the calendar turned to a new century.

The important word here is “aware.”  True awareness is more than knowing that something exists. It is a prerequisite, a key to opening an understanding of the world around us. But, at least for me, this is not a natural gift. It takes work, time and conscious attention to develop.

Observe and Understand

One of my go-to spiritual sages is Anthony de Mello. In his book The Way of Love, The Last Meditations of Anthony de Mello, he writes that awareness is “looking, observing, understanding.” His words challenge me to “switch on the light of awareness and observe yourself and everything around you throughout the day…exactly as it is without the slightest distortion or addition.”  De Mello posits that it is through intentional observing and reflecting, without any judgement or condemnation, that we turn on the light of understanding. It is, he wrote, “nonjudgmental awareness alone that heals and changes and makes one grow.”

For me, the turning point was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. It lit my light of understanding about the existential environmental crisis. While my passion for social and economic justice did not wane, acquiring a deeper level of understanding about climate change added a new dimension.

Developing Awareness

Reflecting on  my career, I can see how deepening levels of understanding influenced the outcome of my work. I spent hours­­ in agency offices and lunch rooms listening to those who directly provide the services. I spent time in homes and offices listening to the people we served: from welfare and unemployment insurance recipients, to those who interacted with Child Protective Services. I believe I can say that I usually did so nonjudgmentally and without distortion.

As a result, I developed an understanding of the hopes and pains of both dimensions of the system (recipients and providers of services). It gave me a heightened awareness about the facts involved in the establishment and delivery of our programs, and the nature of the recipients and staff…facts, not ideologically motivated political opinions. This was, in de Mello’s words, non-judgmental awareness and it made me a better leader, and it changed the way I presented our work to the legislature: we invited the most influential leaders to spend time in our offices and programs, listening and observing. This turned on the light of awareness for some of them, and they became quiet supporters.

Different Issues, the Same Tactics

I learned that by building a broader awareness of both the plight of those we served and of the programs that we offered produced better results than simply presenting facts and arguments. That awareness led to positive actions from some Republican legislators who, in the past, had opposed us. Reflecting on this experience gives me hope that some of those who oppose actions to combat climate change will have similar conversions.

Many of us (including President Joe Biden) have been presenting fact-based arguments about the human contributions to global warming in an attempt to convince doubters.  As recently as a month ago, studies showing that global warming was increasing and was a danger to the world’s future were called liberal fantasies, hoaxes, and deliberate attempts to damage America’s economy.

But perhaps the destructive fires that burned millions of acres of the West, destroying entire towns, fouling the air, and killing people; or, perhaps the storm-induced floods in the Northeast that washed away homes, businesses and lives; or, perhaps the violent hurricane that swept across the gulf region flooding neighborhoods, blowing away homes, washing away barrier islands and killing people will combine to form a deep understanding that triumphs over warped ideology.  If these events fail to switch on de Mello’s sense of awareness in the minds and hearts of our leaders nothing will.

The title of this blog is “Hope and Stone.” The hope is that our nation and our world will take actions to decrease the accelerating climate disaster. The stones represent the legislative building blocks that have already been chiseled out and incorporated into proposed legislation. What is left is the hard work of laying those stones by passing the legislation and adopting long-term strategies to move beyond our dependence on fossil fuels and to lessen our climate-damaging behaviors. We who understand that the future of our posterity is at stake must stand up, speak out and demand action.




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One Reply to “A Different Way to Combat Climate Change”

  1. Jeanne Finan says:

    Hi Bill,
    Thanks for this post drawing our attention to climate change. I believe that Bill McKibben will speak at UNC-Asheville on October 26. I hope that will still happen as I am looking forward to hearing his wisdom. I know Bill from my time in Vermont and he is always worth hearing. Friends in Vermont and a recent New Yorker article shared that Bill is working to focus more of his work with seniors with a newly formed organization called Third Act. He wrote in The New Yorker about this “effort to mobilize older Americans in defense of environmental sanity and economic and racial fairness. We need a working, equitable society, both because it will do less damage and because it will be better able to cope with the damage that’s no longer preventable. If you’re part of this demographic, I hope you’ll figure out a way to help with this new venture—or that you’ll join with existing efforts such as Elders Climate Action and Great Old Broads for Wilderness. ” I AM indeed part of that older American demographic and am interested in how to be more involved. I think your post today is a perfect reminder of how vital this work is. Again, thanks!
    Jeanne Finan
    PS–I also saw that Bill is starting a newsletter on Substack (where I also blog) and will no longer be doing his NEW YORKER columns (which I will miss).

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